by Dan Snapp
A River Runs Drew It
“The best day of my year was always the day after the season when we landed in Whitefish and I could feel myself exhale. Like the pressure was lifted off my shoulders – a physical feeling when we would get into Whitefish. I always looked forward to that day every year and it never let me down. The worst day of my year was always that last day of my summer. I would sit on the dock at my house on Whitefish Lake with my legs dangling in the water before I would fly back on the plane to training camp,” – Drew Bledsoe, from the “Drew Bledsoe and the Art of Football” interview in the inaugural issue of “The Whitefish Review” (http://www.whitefishreview.com/).
Well, there you have it. Mystery solved. Now we know.
Drew Bledsoe doesn’t like football.
Is that too strong a statement? OK, we’ll be fair. He likes football, but in more of a “I’ll show up when I want to show up, put in the requisite amount of work but never improve my game, take the blame publicly but let my surrogates point fingers elsewhere, and oh yeah, I’m your starting quarterback” kind of way.
Still too nasty? It’s hard to know the right tone with Bledsoe. I mean, you hate to bash what seems like a nice guy, and he did have a fairly decent career, what with the four Pro Bowls and the passing records and all. And man, that was a pretty cool moment when he stepped in for Tom Brady in the 2002 AFC Championship Game. But then you remember the rest of it.
Maybe we’re making too much of this. Maybe it’s just a benign comment in an otherwise banal interview, with Drew telling the local scribes, “I’m going to Whitefish” because he never got the chance to say, “I’m going to Disney World.”
But we know better, don’t we? It’s no secret he wasn’t as dedicated to the craft as, say, Brady is. “Off to Montana” was as much a Bledsoe cliché as “MINNESOTA GAME”. Bledsoe’s unguarded admission to the Whitefish Review only confirms what we already knew.
Resurgence and Fan Frenzy
This offseason, Bledsoe joined in retirement two other icons of the team’s 1990s resurgence: Bill Parcells and Curtis Martin. Overshadowed only by Robert Kraft’s Homeric efforts to keep the team cemented (literally) in New England, their efforts rejuvenated a franchise’s spirit, culminating in a Super Bowl appearance.
Bledsoe’s career got off to a rollicking start, what with thrilling comebacks his rookie season, and then record yardage in the sophomore one, leaving fans with visions of Marino dancing in their heads. In hindsight, the comparison wasn’t fair, but it stuck. So long as he was throwing a heap and amassing yardage, all other means of charting his play were blocked out. We thought he was better than he was.
Fans eventually struck upon a yearly mantra of “This will be the year he puts it all together”, and the needle got stuck. Different perceived obstacles to his development were manufactured in our heads: “He’s had a different coordinator each year”; “He never had a quarterback coach”; “The line let him down”. The excuses shifted to other positions in the post-Super Bowl years: “He misses Martin back there”; “He can’t count on Glenn”; and “He needs a dominant tight end to succeed”.
We never took the time to consider that any quarterback would flourish with the luxuries we deemed necessary for Bledsoe to succeed.
At the same time, Bledsoe cultivated a media-friendly image that was impervious to criticism. He was Boy Scout Drew with the Dad who “Parented with Dignity”. He jumped through all the proper media hoops. He was modest, self-effacing, and generous with praise to his teammates, whether they deserved it or not.
Those two forces – the perceived greatness and the Aw Shucks persona – generated a fan and media army ready to do battle whenever a threat to his mantle arose. So when a skinny sixth-rounder succeeded with the same parts reckoned defective under Bledsoe’s lead, the fandom split. Some just weren’t ready to trust their disbelieving eyes.
When Bill Belichick announced Brady would be starting the rest of the way in 2001, mouths dropped. Ron Borges was furious, and leapt off the cliff of reason at that very moment, never to be right about anything Patriots again.
“Some people learn from their mistakes,” Borges wrote that week. “Others are doomed to repeat them. If you wonder which is Bill Belichick, go ask people in Cleveland if they’ve ever heard the story of the guy who benched Bernie Kosar for Todd Philcox?”
“Brady would never have been sacked at all if his line didn’t stink and his receivers went where they’re supposed to,” Borges wrote a month later, venom and sarcasm dripping. “And his team would score on every possession if it would just listen to him. And who ever stepped up in the pocket better than Brady? It’s amazing his predecessor threw for more than 29,000 yards off his back foot all the time, isn’t it?”
Borges wasn’t alone. Bob Halloran, describing Brady as “incrediblyaverage” and likening him to “a sneeze guard at the salad bar”, proved we should never trust his football acumen again. Halloran even admitted he couldn’t enjoy the team’s success so long as Bledsoe wasn’t the guy leading it. Sadly, many shared the sentiment.
When Belichick dropped the second shoe, trading Bledsoe within the division, fans were apoplectic. Many suggested trading Bledsoe would be the Patriots’ Babe Ruth moment. One fan started constructing a weekly chart detailing the time Brady’s passes stayed aloft in comparison to Bledsoe’s.
Borges predicted doom. “Yesterday, Belichick bet it all on No. 12 and told the croupier, ‘Spin the wheel,’” he wrote. “He bet his coaching future on a guy who’s started 17 NFL games. As bets go, that’s how Las Vegas was built, although sometimes the house loses even there.”
In the gleam of the Patriots’ success, those voices are all muted now. The remaining doubters have converted, Bledsoe apologists like the Globe’s Nick Cafardo are no longer on the Patriots beat, and Borges is writing for the Kansas City Chiefs website. We also learned in hindsight that Bledsoe wasn’t exactly the good soldier as previously portrayed. Michael Holley’s and Pepper Johnson’s books told of a sourpuss Bledsoe in team meetings, and of his going behind Belichick’s back to Kraft’s office.
Bledsoe would never be seen in the same light. All the sediments he never pared from his game were now evident to all. He went from “The Next Marino” to “The Statue of Limitations”.
Grateful for What We’ve Got
It’s not Bledsoe’s fault the bloated expectations we built up for him. He never wanted to be a leader, memorably deferring that role to Bruce Armstrong when called upon to take the charge. He didn’t want the glory either, gladly passing that on to his teammates in his weekly conferences.
He did want the starting job, though, feeling his pedigree dictated it. He retired this year rather than face the ignominy of being a backup in any number of cities. Compare that to Vinny Testaverde, who at about the same age went to the Jets as a backup, and then had his best year ever. But that’s Bledsoe’s decision to make, and we can respect that. You have to love the game to want to be holding a clipboard at age 35.
His comments to the Whitefish Review aren’t all that shocking. After all, what players look forward to training camp? It’s the first part of the quote, though, that’s bothersome: “The best day of my year was always the day after the season.” What does this say about his seasons? That he expected them to end badly? He went to the Super Bowl twice, but the better day was the day after?
Seemingly every other player in the league longs just to get to the Super Bowl, and win or lose stores that day away in the photo album alongside their marriages and births of their children. Drew? He’s off thinking of the lake.
It certainly shed light on why he wasn’t going to last long under Belichick – Brady or no Brady. Belichick loves players who love football, really love football. And that just wasn’t Drew.
In the end, Bledsoe will be missed, just not for the reasons we may have projected for him on draft day 1993. Instead, he became the living, breathing embodiment of how great we’ve got it with Belichick. Every time Bledsoe held the ball too long in Buffalo, every time he threw deep into double coverage in Dallas, we had our tangible reminder of why Belichick’s the best at what he does.
Hopefully history will truly reflect just how ballsy a call Belichick made with Bledsoe, not once, but twice. To put it in Borges terms, the house lost, and only Belichick knew the dice were loaded.
This Monday, Michael Silver had a Bledsoe update on Yahoo.com:
“I’ve been sending the guys cell-phone photos, beginning with the first day of training camp,” he says. “The first was of my feet in a lake with a beer in my hand. There was a picture from a golf course, one from the boat when I was waterskiing and one when I was riding my motorcycle.”
There you have Bledsoe’s NFL legacy: all he really wanted was to be somewhere else.